My parents like to remind me and my older brother about the puppet shows we used to put on for them as kids. From behind the sofa, a puppet on each hand, we’d weave elaborate stories involving Sooty, Sweep, a stuffed dragon, and a Ready Eddie puppet that came free with Ready Brek cereal (remember them? Was that just us?)
Lyall always controlled Ready Eddie, and for some reason Ready Eddie – much like your traditional Mr Punch – tended to start attacking the other puppets, especially if Lyall got bored. A regular agent of chaos, Ready Eddie would leave my parents crying with laughter as I got increasingly stroppy about us not following “the plot”.
Perhaps the seeds of our future tastes were in evidence even then – I got very into theatre, Lyall got very into computer games. Which, I’m aware, are by no means all about fighting, but often do tend to be more about smashing shit up than your average play.
Our enthusiasms in these areas have rarely overlapped: I’ve been reviewing theatre for a decade, but I don’t think Lyall has ever willingly taken me up on the offer of a plus-one. But lockdown has brought an increase in genre-blending online work, with a rise in shows drawing on gaming techniques. Shows such as The Lucky Ones, Riptide’s latest immersive, interactive, week-long experience.
Billed as “part theatre – part video game – part escape room,” it sounded like something that could bridge the gap in interests between myself and Lyall – as well as the physical distance between us during lockdown, given we could remotely take part together.
For this lockdown edition, rather than exploring a physical environment, The Lucky Ones comes to you – via email, WhatsApp, and your letterbox. As an individual or a team, participants become implicated in a conflict between a suspicious tech corporation, Capital Experience – who claim to be trying to make the world a better place – and a shadowy Neo-Luddite collective, A New Way of Seeing, who want to expose corporate attempts to use technology to control us. Before you know it, you’re hacking into Capital Experience email accounts. What follows, in nightly chunks between ten minutes and an hour’s worth of head-scratching, are a series of tasks – clue-hunting, code-breaking, puzzle-solving, and eventually one big moral question.
From riffling through excel spreadsheets to guiding characters using google maps to decoding secret messages via a takeaway menu, The Lucky Ones kept us busy most evenings. But did the show really bring us together – or would it merely result in my own brother giving vent to his destructive streak, and cruelly double-crossing me?
Me and Lyall caught up after it had finished – using a mix of voice note, phone conversation, text and email (which seems only appropriate). Below are our edited thoughts.
Holly: Hey Lyall. This is the first time I’ve tried to write a review via WhatsApp. So – what were you expecting of The Lucky Ones, and did it live up to those expectations? To me, it didn’t seem like a video game really?
Lyall: It was somewhat akin to an old-school Sierra-style adventure, though lacking Roberta Williams’ wisdom and wit (and wordplay, perhaps mercifully). Or more recently, Professor Layton. A series of little puzzles.
Holly: It didn’t really feel like a theatre show in any conventional way either – more a puzzle-solving interactive game. It was also billed as “immersive”, which is an interesting word within theatre – but generally it means you’re in an environment you get to explore, or something sensory that surrounds you. With this, the immersive thing was that it was coming at you in your email, your Google Maps, you’re getting messages on your phone in the afternoon. It was 360 in its use of the everyday technology.
And it was durational – it lasted a week. But was that really immersive? For me, I don’t know that it actually was. I feel like it would have been a more absorbing and intense experience if I had been completely in that world for two hours or something. While it being spread out over a week was fun, and a new experience for me, it possibly diluted my involvement in the story and the world, rather than amping it up.
Lyall: The choice to spread over a week created *significant* pacing issues. I felt like I was having to “switch on” to get in the mindset, but no sooner had I done so I needed to “switch off” because we’d solved that night’s content and needed to wait until tomorrow. This on/off existence might sound spy-like but certainly didn’t feel like it.
Holly: I agree. There were spikes of adrenaline, sometimes – but there was also an overall loss of tension, and I am sure there were details I missed because I’d forgotten things, one night to the next.
Lyall: Probably my main reservation is that they didn’t give us enough information about the world of the play, the characters and organisations. Perhaps we did not ask enough, and they were wary of telling rather than showing, but in the end I felt neither told nor shown, and consequently the narrative lacked heft.
Holly: Yes, a few days in I realised I didn’t really know *why* we were supporting the Neo-Luddites against Capital Experience – we should probably have asked more in the early sessions! But I think the urge is to get immediately stuck into the puzzle-solving. Perhaps a longer, more narrative-based intro might have helped?
The world of the play is very much about organisations that collect data and share that in potentially dodgy ways. You have a much greater real-world understanding of that than I do – and I think that had an impact. I was more in cheerily the world of the game, “I’ll suspend my disbelief, whatever the actors tell me is happening!” whereas you were more resistant: “if you put me in this world, you’ve got to get this shit right.”
Lyall: I was expecting more of an adversarial thing with multiple approaches allowed, to permit a variety of solutions according to the expertise of the players. On the final day there was some extra codebreaking stuff that rewarded those who were digging around, which was great (and did actually nudge our perspective on the narrative somewhat), I don’t know why there weren’t similar on other nights. Of course, it’s possible they existed and we missed them.
I’m not much of a programmer, I’m certainly no Turing, but I’ve worked in IT and have an interest in cryptography (computer security, Bitcoin, etc). On paper, a storytelling production that leverages a mixture of media to raise questions about the pervasiveness of technology (and those who wield its power) should be right up my street. But on several occasions I asked some pointed technical questions that went unanswered. I want to know WHY we’re not removing innocent names from documents, I want to know WHY we’re attacking a server in a particular way.
If your game’s narrative is predicated on technological aptitude, and you don’t deliver on that front, then I feel my engagement slipping away. And then I start doing things like sabotaging my sister’s noble plans. Sorry Hol.
Holly: Ha! Yes, one “advantage” of being a team rather than individual players was that you could go behind my back and brutally betray the good work I was trying to do. I thought that was neat actually – it turned out to have quite a big consequence for one of the characters we interacted with. I also now know I can’t trust you – so much for bringing us closer together! ;)
Joking aside, did you enjoy it being a nightly interaction? Would you want to do such a thing again outside of lockdown/me forcing you to do a review? Or would you rather I just let you choose a video game to teach me?
Lyall: You are welcome to come over and play Spelunky any time you like…
I liked The Lucky Ones. I want to be clear that all my reservations are concerned with the execution – the idea itself is great. It’s a timely and vital reminder that we are easily led, and that we have handed the reins of cultural leadership to a small cadre of libertarian-leaning IT nerds whose now-ubiquitous corporations just happened to be in the right place at the right time about 20 years ago. We did not elect them and their intentions and core ideologies are opaque and unknowable. It’s fertile ground for a high-stakes tale of espionage.
I think the nightly interaction is a mixed bag, though. It must be tremendously difficult to design a play experience that feels urgent but can be done whenever. Before dinner, or after, just whenever you’ve got a few minutes, maybe save a life, or the planet… you know? It’s difficult to reconcile these. I think if it all took place in a day and I was running around a city it would be incredible. As a lockdown activity, though, it is inevitably a product of its constraints, generally for the worse. It was a fascinating experience despite these constraints, not because of them.
I could’ve done with more rigidity, perhaps distinct “content drops” that signified play had started for that day. There were a few too many “uh… are we going? Are we done?” occasions. But when they nailed it (the Chinese restaurant night!) it was a really fun, novel experience. And it pulled off the trick that’s essential to a good puzzle game: it made me feel clever.
The Lucky Ones next runs from 22nd-28th May 2021. More info here.